Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The journey concluded
Upon finishing The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor, I felt both a sense of accomplishment for having finished a trilogy of books, but also a sense of loss, for having completed this reading journey. I would be losing a delightful traveling companion. The trip was a joy; the parting, wistful.

But all readers of Fermor’s trilogy should be thankful that we have a final volume. For after publishing the second installment, Fermor was unable to write this final volume. Perhaps the Saturnalian drags of aging, such as the death of his spouse, declining energy and memory, and homesickness robbed him of the necessary vitality to complete his task. However, a fortuitous event allowed this project to go forward, with the participation of Fermor before he died in 2011 at age 96. In short, Fermor began writing about his journey in the 1960s, but he set aside this initial account that focused on the final leg of this journey. The discovery of this manuscript, along with the recovery of some of his diaries, allowed this book to be completed. The editors, Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, detail how the book came to publication in their Introduction. We are fortunate to have this volume, although the circumstances of its coming into existence distinguish it from its two predecessors, making it different in intriguing ways.

The account of the last leg of Paddy’s journey is different from the first two because this work is not completed by Fermor. The prose in this work isn’t as highly polished as that in the first two installments. But this lack of polish isn’t at all detrimental to the work. The narrative moves more quickly, and one gets a stronger sense of Fermor’s first impressions. For writers and curious readers, the comparison of this work with its two predecessors provides intriguing insights into Fermor’s meticulous writing, which results—when fully polished—into exquisite, almost Baroque prose. Yet this less polished gem has stands well on its own.

Of special interest to me was the fact that a great deal of this volume recounting the final leg of Fermor’s journey involves Romania and Bucharest, in particular. I was delighted to learn of Fermor’s great time in Bucharest because I am finding it a very amiable and beautiful city. Bucharest in the 1930s was lively and prosperous, and Fermor makes the most of it. He befriends both prostitutes and diplomats, deploying his usual charm and displaying his admirable ability to move easily between social classes. Of course, descriptions of Calea Victoriei (a main thoroughfare in the Bucharest), just a block away from our apartment, furthered my enjoyment of his account.

After leaving Bucharest, Paddy once again heads south across the Danube into Bulgaria, where new adventures await him. Here he recounts some of the tough times that he had, unlike most of the account  of his journey. For instance, he describes a scuffle with a friend that seems to rise out of nowhere, and he describes becoming lost and hurt as night falls along the Black Sea coastline. These unexpected dangers remind us that while Fermor enjoyed great fun and adventures along the way, his trip was not without its challenges.

Fermor’s account stops midsentence just a few days from his eventual arrival in Istanbul (or Constantinople as he insisted on calling it). The editors provide some account of his time there by use of his diary, but I feel a bit let down not having the benefit of Fermor’s full account of his initial entry and observations of this great city. But while Istanbul gets shortchanged, the reader is in for one final treat.

The editors include entries from Paddy’s diary of his trip to Mount Athos, the holy land of Greece filled with Orthodox monasteries and where no women are allowed. Fermor went there after about two weeks in Istanbul. The use of Paddy’s diary provides a less mature reflection on his surroundings and even less polish in his prose. But the sense of immediacy compensates for the reduction in reflection and polish. We only get the 20-year-old Paddy in this account, not the mature Fermor. We experience first-draft observations about the monastic traditions, icons, and people that Paddy encounters, as well as his descriptions of the natural beauty of the stony, forested land and the shining Aegean Sea. We experience Paddy’s growing comfortable in the monastic routine. I only wish he had been more forthcoming about what he thought of these cloistered men and the lives that they lead. We also learn that Paddy traveled there after famed British travel writer Robert Byron and Byron’s friend David Talbot Rice had done so in the 1920s.  Paddy notes having received a gift of Byron’s The Stations: Travels to the Holy Mountain, about Byron’s visit, given to Paddy by one of the monks described in the book and who’d received this inscribed copy from Byron. Paddy’s description of his enjoyment of Byron’s book makes me want to read it, as well.

So it ends. We might well have been stranded at the end of Between the Woods and Water, but through some good fortune and the efforts of Cooper and Thubron, we have a satisfying—surprisingly satisfying—conclusion of this marvelous journey. It has been a pleasure.

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